historic ford building

Century of Progress

The Century of Progress Exposition highlighted innovation in the early-1930s and was the birthplace of the Ford Rotunda.

In May of 1933, the world gathered in Chicago, Illinois for the Century of Progress International Exposition, where many individuals and companies built elaborate displays to demonstrate their latest technological innovations, and Ford was no exception. The Wonder Rotunda constructed by Ford Motor Company, “to show the how of progress” according to Henry Ford, was the largest single exhibit building along the shores of Lake Michigan. The centerpiece building, designed by Albert Kahn, spanned 900 feet long, 213 feet wide, and rose to a height of 12 stories, taking up more than half of the total 11 acres of the Ford exhibit.

In keeping with the fair’s overall theme of technological innovation, Ford teamed with 21 manufacturing partners to create five main areas of display. The first was a 1850s-era workshop, which illustrated the challenges of innovating without modern inventions, such as electricity. The second area was the main hall, where the “Drama of Transportation” featured 67 vehicles spanning history, from an Egyptian chariot to the latest Ford and Lincoln vehicles. The magnificent backdrop to these vehicles was, at the time, the largest photograph in the world. The image, which was 600 feet long and 20 feet high, took 40 men over a month to construct and told the story of Ford Motor Company around the world.

Inside Ford's exposition building

The third display area focused on manufacturing. It demonstrated the process of building a vehicle from the raw materials, such as iron, aluminum, cotton, and lumber, to the finished product, and highlighted the activities of Ford’s many manufacturing partners. An intricate sound system explained the many processes, in succession, for attendees. Next was the agricultural display, which centered on American farmers and Ford’s use of soy in paint, enamel, horn buttons, door handles, and other small plastic car parts. Born on a farm, Henry Ford had a keen interest in connecting agriculture and manufacturing to better the lives of all Americans.

The final, and most elaborate, display area in the Ford exhibit was the “Roads of the World” outdoor park. It was an oval roadway, broken into 21 sections, telling the history of road construction around the world. From the dirt roads of early civilization, through wooden, cobblestone, and brick streets, to the most modern concrete highway, Ford illustrated the importance of all aspects of innovation related to the movement of people. Attendees visiting this outdoor area at night were also treated to a rainbow light show on the exterior façade of the round exhibit hall. On the clearest of nights, the lights shone a mile into the sky.

Ford at the Fair

The Century of Progress was originally scheduled to run for one year, but was so well attended that a second year was added, and almost 50 million people visited the many exhibitions in Chicago. Ford’s display was so popular that the Company decided to move the building and reconstruct it in Dearborn, Michigan. There, visitors could continue to learn about Ford’s many transportation innovations, children could sit on Santa’s lap in magnificent Christmas displays, and millions would be transported to the Rouge for a tour of an assembly plant. The Ford Rotunda became one of the most popular tourist attractions in the United States from 1936 until 1962, when it was destroyed by fire.